There’s been something in the Spanish water since the turn of the millennium. Not in a literal sense, like that something that once made holidaymaker’s stomachs churn, but in figurative speech the nation have found someway of producing an improbable collection of gifted midfield talents.
Spain’s dominance of the international game during the late noughties was built on a carousel of possession, as a group of diminutive, technically flawless, midfielders passed opposition sides into submission. At the height of tiki-taka there was no brand of football that could compare, as skill trumped size and angles and awareness outmanoeuvred athleticism.
For fans of English football the change in perception had already long began. Imports from abroad had opened the eyes of the English, who learnt that control and patience could be just as successful as strength and speed. Among the pioneers for introducing the Premier League to a cultural awakening, was Cesc Fabregas.
Fabregas had been captain of the youth side at Barcelona, but a charm offensive from Arsenal and the promise of a clear route to first-team football persuaded the Spanish starlet to depart his boyhood side for north London.
“I was 15 and I was the captain of that team and I was well valued,” Fabregas recalled to Five’s The Locker Room.
“On top of me there was (Andres) Iniesta and other players who had potential to make it. One day, a scout came from Arsenal to talk to my parents. And I always like to listen. The guy told me he had been to watch me 50 times and that I was made to play for Arsenal and the Premier League.
“When I went to London it was June and everyone was on holiday. Arsene Wenger was in Paris for holiday but he flew in a private jet to meet me. David Dean came to London Colney to meet me. This shocked me in a way, like ‘wow, Arsene Wenger’, I am 15-years-old, I am nobody and this guy is breaking up his holiday to meet me. This for me was like ‘wow’.
“And then we are talking, he spoke to my mother, asked what I was like when I was little. He showed me the training ground and I just fell in love, I fell in love with the whole project, the whole thing.”
Wenger’s promise of a fast route to first-team football was kept. He became Arsenal’s youngest first-team player, aged 16 years and 177 days, when making his debut against Rotherham in October 2003. Fabregas’ first season was restricted to three League Cup appearances as Arsenal were crowned Premier League champions, achieving the feat with a historic unbeaten campaign.
The following season proved a breakthrough, as injuries in midfield led to the Spanish teenager earning a run in the side. He was at the centre of an infamous incident after defeat at Manchester United, having thrown a pizza in the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson in a match dubbed the “Battle of the Buffet” as Arsenal’s record 49-game unbeaten run ended at Old Trafford.
Patrick Vieira’s exit at the end of the campaign saw Fabregas fast-tracked into a prominent role. Scepticism was plentiful given Wenger’s faith in a raw replacement for the iconic club captain, doubts which only increased given the contrast in styles between Vieira, a marauding man-mountain of a midfielder, and the slight Spanish starlet tasked with replacing him.
Fabregas, however, grew in confidence, stature and importance during a fine 2005/06 season. An outstanding performance against Juventus in the Champions League sent a statement, as the teenager went toe-to-toe with former team-mate Vieira and came out on top. He starred as Arsenal reached the Champions League final, earning inclusion in the UEFA Team of the Year for the first time.
Fabregas continued to get better and better under the guidance of Wenger and soon became the figurehead for a new Arsenal. The pillars of the club’s title-winning teams had moved on and Fabregas was at the forefront of change, a midfielder full of guile and the leading light of an inexperienced team that was fun but often flawed.
He was crowned as winner of the PFA Young Player of the Year after a fine 2007/08 campaign and that summer formed part of the Spain squad that won the European Championship, La Roja’s first major title since 1964.
Fabregas’ growing importance was recognised as he was named Arsenal captain in November 2008, while his on-field influence grew with his release into a more advanced role. Fabregas had evolved from promising teenager to one of the league’s most influential players. Even in the frenetic pace of the Premier League, Fabregas always had time. With the game ahead of him and self-earned time and space, he had few equals.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) April 15, 2020
Fabregas’ finest season for Arsenal came in 2009/10. It began with a mesmeric performance as the Gunners thrashed Everton, with the club captain scoring twice and creating two other goals in a 6-1 win. It was an example of this Arsenal team at their best, one who lacked a little in pursuit of major trophies but were capable of cutting apart teams with extraordinary performances of free-flowing football.
In October, he starred in an electric Arsenal performance at the Emirates, becoming one of just six players to provide four assists in a Premier League game, and scoring another, as the north Londoners humiliated Blackburn.
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 13, 2020
Fabregas was sublime, as he was for much of a season that – despite being curtailed prematurely due to a hairline fracture – saw him record 40 goal involvements in just 37 appearances.
That summer brought World Cup success in South Africa. Fabregas assisted Andre Iniesta’s final winner in Johannesburg to further enhance his reputation, not that it needed a boost. He spent one further season at Arsenal, before inevitable interest from Spain arrived.
Barcelona, having watched the La Masia graduate flourish on foreign shores, secured a £34m deal to bring Fabregas back to the club. Already blessed with Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta, Barcelona’s pursuit of Fabregas – one conducted over several summers – was indicative of Fabregas’ talent and ceiling. Barcelona had dominated European football, winning the Champions League in two of the previous three seasons, but believed Fabregas could make them even better.
His impact was immediate with five goals scored in the September after his arrival, including one in the UEFA Super Cup win over Porto. After barren seasons at Arsenal, he was now part of a trophy-winning machine, one formed under Pep Guardiola and his obsession with midfield control.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) January 4, 2023
Fabregas’ debut season ended with honours as Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Supercopa de España, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, with the summer arrival scoring 15 goals and providing 20 assists in 48 appearances.
The Xavi, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets midfield meant there was no obvious role for Fabregas however, with the midfielder often used from the left, at the tip of a diamond, or as a false nine. Forced to adapt, he was occasionally criticised despite consistent end product.
Never forget when Cesc Fabregas responded to a fan who said that he just sat on the bench at Barcelona 🥶 pic.twitter.com/pUKGSjSVAI
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) July 3, 2023
After another European Championship success with Spain in 2012, Fabregas won the first league title of his career in 2012/13. He scored 11 league goals, but there were again question marks regarding his role.
The opening weekend of the 2013/14 campaign saw Fabregas produce a creative masterclass, registering five assists as Barcelona thrashed Levante 7-0. It was the final campaign of his career with the Spaniards however, who allowed the midfielder to depart for Chelsea at the end of the season.
The move to west London was controversial after Arsenal turned down an option to re-sign the midfielder and it was a decision the Gunners came to regret. Fabregas made his mark with a sensational assist on debut for Chelsea, an exquisite example of his vision as he cushioned an outrageous pass into the path of André Schürrle at Burnley.
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 14, 2019
Jose Mourinho had sought the signing of Fabregas as he looked to build a title-winning team in his second spell at Stamford Bridge. The arrivals of Fabregas and Diego Costa proved transformative, as the former’s elegant invention provided ammunition to the snarling Spaniard signed from Atletico Madrid to lead the line.
Despite his Arsenal affiliation, Fabregas soon became an instant hero across the capital. His first season was packed full of magical moments as he led the Premier League for assists (18) in Chelsea’s title-winning campaign.
The connection with Costa was the driving force in the Blues’ triumph, a combination of awareness and aggression. As Fabregas dissected defences with passes through lines, Costa dismantled them with hustle, hard-work and power.
Fabregas remained central as Chelsea won another league title in 2016/17, this time under the management of Antonio Conte. Excelling in a deeper creative position alongside Nemanja Matic, he recorded 12 assists in the Premier League and became the fastest player at that time to reach a century of goals created in the division.
Five seasons at Chelsea brought 198 appearances and four major trophies, before the Spaniard brought his career to a close with spells in the luxurious settings of Monaco and Como.
One of Spanish football’s finest exports, he represented his nation on 110 occasions and was a prominent part of La Roja’s Golden Generation of talent. Only Ryan Giggs has ever provided more Premier League assists than Fabregas, a footballer who had an innate ability to pick the right pass at the right time.
A player who found time when there appeared none and space when there appeared little, Fabregas was a profound playmaker with an eye for the perfect pass.